'Second chance' lawyer gets a second chance

This story was first published on Nov 16, 2014

The man who believes in giving others a second chance now has his own.

Less than a year ago, doctors handed veteran criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan the death sentence. After he was diagnosed with heart and kidney failure, they told his family to take him home and arrange for palliative care.

But his family refused.

Now, the tenacious 66-year-old is back in action, even though he has to be hooked up to a dialysis machine thrice a week, for four hours each time.

The pain and fatigue make him grit his teeth.

But this does not stop him from narrating his musings to his wife of 27 years, Vimala, albeit in a softer tone than he uses in courtrooms.

The housewife, 56, logs down her husband's thoughts and anecdotes - all material for his second book, titled It's Easy To Cry.

It is expected to be on shelves next year, more than six years after his first book, The Best I Could, in which he explored his most famous cases and his own prison experience after being suspected of being a secret society member.

His second book delves into his fight to survive and his experience in hospital.

The road to recovery has not been easy, he admits.

"I know I've done a lot of bad things, but I think my good things outweighed the bad, and why is God doing this to me?" he asks.

"Dialysis can be quite tiring and depressing sometimes, realising that this machine is keeping you alive. But you must have the mental capacity to overcome this sort of feeling... If you let it get worse and worse, that will finish you off."

Mr Subhas, now nearly 20kg slimmer at 65kg, is no stranger to illness. He has had three heart attacks since 1978, lost one kidney to cancer in 2001, suffered diabetes and blocked intestines, no thanks to excessive drinking and smoking - at his worst, he smoked more than three packets of cigarettes a day.

He quit smoking in 1997, after his third heart attack, and seldom drinks now.

After what he has gone through, he says his only regret is not having spent enough time with his family - something he is trying to make up for now. He is also trying to reconnect with old friends he has lost touch with.

He speaks to The Sunday Times from his Raffles Place office in law firm RHTLaw Taylor Wessing, where he is a senior partner.

Previously he was a senior consultant at KhattarWong and Harry Elias Partnership. His own law firms were MPD Nair and Company, and Subhas Anandan Advocate and Solicitor.

Work, he says, has helped him stave off depression.

And it was his wife, who initially demanded that he retire, who got him back in action.

"When I was in the ICU really fighting for my life, I told my wife that I would spend more time with the family. She said, promise me you will not go to court and you will retire. I said, okay, I promise."

But for a man who has spent more than four decades in court, it did not take long before lazy afternoons in front of the television became a drag.

"How much TV can you watch? How many walks can my wife take me on, in a wheelchair to Marina Bay or Botanic Gardens?" he asks.

Seeing the "lost and faraway look" on his face, his wife relented. "She said, 'I release you from that promise, but you must promise you look after your health, when you are tired, you will stop,'" he recalls.

That was in May.

Since then, he has been back at the office and in court, although he has reduced his workload by a fifth. He, however, remains as feisty as ever.

In his first trial after returning, the judges at the Court of Appeal told him he could deliver his arguments sitting down. He kept on standing.

"The day when I have to sit down and argue a case in front of the highest tribunal in Singapore, I think that's the day to stop going to court," he says.

He was called to the Bar in 1971 after graduating from the then University of Singapore, and since then has taken on more than 2,500 cases and earned himself a reputation for never rejecting cases, whatever the crime.

He defended Anthony Ler, who hired a teenager to kill his wife in 2001; Took Leng How, a vegetable packer who befriended eight-year- old girl Huang Na, then killed her in 2004; and Leong Siew Chor, who chopped up a woman he killed in the Kallang body parts case.

Another client was ex-stewardess Constance Chee, who abducted her ex-lover's four-year-old daughter and caused her death after a fall from a flat in 2004.

Says Mr Subhas, who is president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore: "However heinous your offence is, I think you deserve a proper defence, especially in capital cases... Why should anybody say that he is guilty when the court has not found him guilty yet?"

His belief in second chances and pro-bono work saw a fund named after him last month - the Yellow Ribbon Fund Subhas Anandan Star Bursary Award. It will provide former convicts financial help to sponsor their studies.

He is slowly passing the baton to his nephew Sunil Sudheesan, 35, and another criminal lawyer at the firm, 27-year-old Diana Ngiam.

Mr Sunil says that being the nephew of Singapore's best-known criminal lawyer has its advantages. Clients are never in short supply, for one thing.

"I'm happy describing myself as the bag carrier," says Mr Sunil, whose father is one of Mr Subhas' four siblings.

When Mr Subhas is asked if he sees his nephew as his successor, he replies: "I hope so. And I hope that my son will join Sunil in years to come."

His son Sujesh, 24, is a second-year law student at the University of Nottingham in England. "Whether he's going to do criminal law, it doesn't really matter... Let him take his own path.

"Anybody can become a good lawyer if you work hard. But I want my son to be a good human being, not chasing after money all the time, and to show compassion to people less fortunate. I would have rather people say he's a good man than he's a good lawyer."

Having come from a kampung in Sembawang where his family moved to after his father retired as a clerk in the British Royal Navy, Mr Subhas has seen how circumstances can force people to turn to crime.

And while criminal law is not the most lucrative line of legal work, since many clients cannot afford a lawyer, he says receiving the gratitude of those he represents is enough. Some of them, like Ler, even offered him their organs.

"I may not have made so much money, but I think the goodwill I got, even the richest lawyer in Singapore will not have."

limyihan@sph.com.sg

This story was first published on Nov 16, 2014